Where Did Mark Twain's Pseudonym Come From?

Mark Twain Secret Revealed
This is an undated photo of author Samuel Clemens, better known by his pen-name Mark Twain. (AP Photo)
This is an undated photo of author Samuel Clemens, better known by his pen-name Mark Twain. (AP Photo)

If you're familiar with Mark Twain's memorable novels, you're probably aware that his pen name is not his given name. The author and satirist best known for "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer" and "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" was born Samuel Langhorne Clemens.

He grew up in Hannibal, Missouri, a town located along the Mississippi River that would later serve as locational inspiration for his books. He spent years working on riverboats, where he met riverboat captain Isaiah Sellers, who, he claims, went by "Mark Twain." The colloquialism was used to denote whether or not water is deep enough for safe passage. Isaiah died in 1863, and, according to Mark Twain, "as he could no longer need that signature, I laid violent hands upon it without asking permission of the proprietor's remains."

This had long been accepted as the story behind his pen name, but book dealer and scholar Kevin Mac Donnell stumbled upon a magazine article that likely debunks this myth. When searching for lesser-known works by Mark Twain, Mac Donnell discovered an earlier use of the name in a humor journal called Vanity Fair(no, not that Vanity Fair). Daniel Hernandez writes inthe LA Review of Books:

In a burlesque titled “The North Star,” the sketch reports a farcical meeting of Charleston mariners who adopt a resolution “abolishing the use of the magnetic needle, because of its constancy to the north.” These characters include a “Mr. Pine Knott,” (a pun for dense wood), “Lee Scupper” (a drain), and “Mark Twain,” (shallow depth in shipboard jargon).

The anecdote makes perfect sense, considering the author's satirical outward demeanor. He used two pen names before settling on the one he's now known for: "Josh" and the more slapstick, "Thomas Jefferson Snodgrass."

Of Twain's paradoxical personality, Carmela Ciuraru wrote for The Huffington Post:

Mark Twain was a brilliant self-marketer, fastidiously sustaining his image as America's most beloved writer. The celebrity in the white suit was charming, popular, witty, and jovial, and a raconteur without peer. Then there was Samuel Clemens: a man who lived with profound feelings of guilt, shame, insecurity, and self-loathing.

Twain joins George Orwell, Ayn Rand, and Pablo Neruda as one of many classic authors who used noms de plume. While some writers, such as George Eliot and J.K. Rowling, choose to protect their identity for practical reasons (namely, gender stereotypes), others' reasoning remains a mystery.

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